JOHN UPDIKE sits fidgeting in a warm pool of fading light.
Above him on the wall is a photo of a woman's naked torso, the firm flanks lustrous, the buttocks pendulous and serene. Below, in the fussy desk-top clutter, is a cup of tea and small plate of graham crackers.
"Most of your life is spent in an undisastrous, however anxious, condition. That's what I reflect," he says, blunt, clean fingers picking endlessly at a package of matches. "Especially the last book, which is about just that -- middle age as a kind of idling time when things are cooking but nothing really comes to a boil."
"Rabbit Is Rich," just published by Knopf, is Updike's third novel about the domestic aggravations, sexual adventurism and fuddled yearnings of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, and the latest in the 49-year-old author's awesome spawn of work: 11 novels, seven books of stories, four volumes of poetry, two of essays and a play. This outpouring has earned him a National Book Award (for "The Centaur," 1963), the plaudits of the great (John Cheever calls him "the most brilliant and versatile writer of his generation"), a favored and regular place in the pages of The New Yorker and a vast equity of esteem as one of the finest literary critics in the language.
He is our unchallenged master at evoking the heroic void of ordinary life, where small braveries contend in vain against the nagging entropy of things, where the fear of death drips from a faulty faucet and supermarket daydreams turn to God. With heart-clutching clarity, he transmutes the stubborn banality of middle-class existence into tableaux that shiver with the hint of spiritual meaning: "a little phosphorescent glow coming out of a lot of muddle."
"I'm kind of stuck in the class to which I was born," Updike says, and "I'm really here on assignment, trying to figure out about America now and my fellow Americans." That mission has gained him the mute gratitude of millions, yet "It's never too clear to me whether I am famous in any real sense," says Updike with an elfin smirk. "Certain literary people maybe have heard of me. But I don't stop traffic or anything." Not that there's much in the sleepy hamlet of Georgetown, Mass., 30 miles north of Boston. "If I go to Harvard Square, I tend to get somebody who tells me who I am. But since I already know that, um, it's a brief conversation." At this, he begins his calmly contagious three-part laugh: a humming "unnnn" sound like a warning buzzer; followed by a wheezing whoosh like a man trying to blow up a paper bag with his mouth wide open; and capped with a fluting trill, a little tenor whinny of mirth.
The sound is swallowed in the big book-bound study, a former antique shop where a mote-speckled slant of sunlight splashes onto the old Olivetti manual typewriter and sprays onto a wall of silent bindings. Updike, chin in hand, meanders in long sentences jointed with subjunctives, as if his life were some amusing hypothesis; and in the lulling lilt, time itself seems to drowse. It is four years since his celebrated divorce and marriage to a second wife, Martha, with its shuffle of chattels and children. "I had four and Martha has three. Only one lives here, and goes to the local schools. Her two older boys are at Andover and my youngest is 20 and works in Boston. I try to see my kids fairly often, although they're adults."
He will say that "my world, insofar as I have a world, is in New York, where I really feel at home -- maybe I'm a big enough boy now that I can risk living there." But it is 24 years since he fled the mercenary tempo of Manhattan's literary mills and "tried to hide on the far side of Boston": arriving in Ipswich in 1957 with his first wife and family; moving to a farm and meeting Martha when she and her first husband, bought the Updikes' old house; separating in 1974 for solitary exile in Boston; then coming here to the rambling red frame house on Main Street with the erstwhile lover he married in 1977.
Through it all, he has continued the compassionate anatomy of bourgeois life at the rate of a book a year, well ahead of the other two members of the Updike "writing dynasty": his mother, Linda Grace Hoyer and his eldest son David, 23, who "writes so sweetly, more sweetly than I." All of them appear in The New Yorker, and "I'm like the nut in the nutcracker between these two jaws."
He dips a cracker in the tea, raises it gingerly and watches, perplexed, as the soggy end droops, falls and plops in the cup. It seems impossible that this genteel, dithering recluse with a slight stutter, thin arms and swelling belly can be the same veteran adulterer whose intramural lusts and crumbling marriage are foreshadowed in "Couples" (1968) and abundantly chronicled in "Too Far to Go: The Maples Stories" (1979). Few writers have risked so much of themselves on the page. Although transformed by art, "any short story is somewhat sharpened and pointed and broadly rearranged real thing," Updike says, and, "The Maples were kind of like letters home."
He has been converting his life into fiction with dazzling alacrity for decades. "I try to write as if it is 100 years from now," he says, and "have no worries about revealing myself at all. I have no shame or pride in that regard." His children, he says, don't read his work much, and "I'm grateful for that." In some of the stories, they "have felt a little exposed maybe . . . and had I had older children who were intently reading over my shoulder, I would have found it inhibiting" because of "all the sex, a certain despair maybe that you wouldn't express to a child directly. The books now exist for them as a kind of archeaology that they can consult some day if they're ever curious." As for his first wife, "Well, Mary was an artist, and although I'm sure she would have liked some of the stories to have morals other than what they had, she was trained by Radcliffe and her own upbringing and sense of artistic merit to give me space to write what I could. Though she may have winced once or twice, she never tried to keep me from publishing."
Since the malaise of the mid-'70s, Updike has become marginally more gregarious. "At first, he seemed very shy of other writers and never wanted to talk about books," says Cambridge novelist Ann Kaplan, who with her scholar husband, Justin, have been friends of Updike's for over 20 years. In those days, his frequent companions were local burghers, "like the characters in his novels . . . he feels very comfortable with that kind of person," Kaplan says. But in the past few years, "he's much more willing to mix it up with writers," although "for a man of his immense reputation, he's not very self-confident."
He still lives with an obstinate diffidence, "in thrall to this wretched game of golf" at which he's "not really good, but I have flashes. I didn't break 80 once this summer to my delight," and running sporadically: "There's a lot of jogging in 'Rabbit Is Rich,' based on my own jogging, but having written the book I found I didn't need to continue the experience." In Ipswich, he served on a host of local committees, took part in historical events, marched with the Ipswich Recorder Society, and "participated in the life of the community to a degree that was healthy at first, but became kind of a drag." In Georgetown, he is a very private citizen: "My father was a great do-gooder, and I'm afraid I have a do-gooding streak which unless severely curbed will run away with me."
During the Vietnam period, Updike's patriotic temperament was regarded as hawkishly retrograde in the literary dovecote. But he is a generally liberal Democrat and hosted a fund-raiser in 1978 for Senate candidate Paul Tsongas. "Compared to Jack Abbott and Norman Mailer, I'm a little conservative on some subjects," he says, and worries that "there is a terrible tendency of hastily destroying something and not putting something better in its place."
That includes religion, the earnest if unconventional profession, which is often overlooked by those who regard Updike merely as a purveyor of sex and angst in the suburbs. His father was a minister's son, and Updike was a Sunday-school regular. "I tried to go to the Luther League one night because it was where all of the fancy girls were gathering. I happened to go on Halloween and didn't have a costume and sulked home crying in the dark and never went to Luther League again. I never had much sensual or social pleasure out of the organized church." But he remains a dutiful Congregationalist. "I've never let it go, because when the faith goes, I never could see any other consolation in sight."
"Our moments of remission are brief and reality is inexorable," Updike says. Yet his characters are needled by divinity, even while trapped in a sticky miasma of family and fate. Updike calls himself "an oddball Platonist," and throughout his fiction, images of earth, bodily functions, maternal figures and the dead in their graves coalesce in a constrictive mire, while the possibility of salvation -- sexual or sacred -- beckons from above.
"What is marriage," asks the lapsed clergyman of "A Month of Sundays" (1975) but "a deep well out of which the man and woman stare at the impossible sun, the distant bright disc, of freedom." And what is adultery ("our inherent condition") but a way "of getting out in the world and seeking knowledge," as Updike writes in "Marry Me" (1976). In "Couples," he says, "near the heart of the book was something about sex and religion being ways of fighting out of this confining net of circumstance, of defying your own mortality. So it's not surprising that ministers are horny or that people in the choir sleep together. And I always felt churches as yea-saying and sex as yea-saying in a world in which there's a lot of nay-saying.
"And I don't just mean people. Even things. A lot of things say nay around you. The lawn! Did you ever look at the lawn in a certain light" -- he turns toward the bright windows and the meadow beyond -- "and you realize it's this teeming mass of little lives that don't matter and they're going to die shortly and in every cubic inch there's a 100,000 microbes and they're dying. I've got really depressed out on the golf course as I looked at the yards and yards of grass. Nature is an appalling spectacle! Crushing! So in the midst of this crushing, what shelters are there but bed and church? And maybe a book now and then."
His men, an uncommonly passive lot, feel this more than his women ("it may be that the earth-woman link is so centrally perceived by me that I don't give them the full walk-around kind of humanity that the men, with all their weakness and worry, get"), and none so much as Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. "Harry's life is a zig-zag between feelings of oppression and being bottled up by circumstance in all senses, and relief -- the lifting off, the getting out, fleeing, running." In the first book, a youthful Harry tries to extricate himself from marital stupor; in the second he does, with a vain excursion into counterculture and a thick overlay of guilt at the death of a daughter and the squander of his life. In the new novel, a fastidious, conservative and pot-bellied Harry at 46 is reconciled to his now-svelte wife, Janice, to the vexing ravages of inflation (the initial inspiration for the book) and to the lackluster prosperity of managing a Toyota dealership owned by Janice and her mother. But the matriarchy cloys, Harry wars with his shiftless son Nelson, and as always adultery glimmers on the edge of contentment.
Yet for all his Updikean preoccupations, "Harry was invented as sort of a real alter-ego. He was very unlike me: He was a successful high-school athlete whereas I was an unsuccessful what is now called a nerd. I was a good student, but not a very beautiful or well-coordinated person. And so in some sense it was wish-fulfillment to think my way into a 6-foot-3 blond jock."
"It's a funny name, Updike; people laugh when they hear it. My father being the only Updike in the whole region, it accented his sense of being a stranger . . . I inherited that sense of strangeness."
Wesley Updike was a schoolteacher in Shillington, Pa., where Updike was born. He had been a cable splicer for the telephone company, but was laid off in the Depression and "his sense of economic terror was communicated to me very early." He was "a fascinating mixture of a good decent man and a wild man, a real scorner of convention, a sort of a comedian. He was always talking to bums on the street . . . I found this wish to engage the world rather embarrassing. I was all for playing it very cool and letting the world come to me if it chose to. So I turned to these introverted exercises -- I drew and I wrote." Now nearing 50 as a "latently friendly person," Updike feels "my father's extrovertism trying to get out, but I'm determined to keep it bottled up."
The family had little money, but "I was very content in that small town, very admiring of the powerful boys and the beautiful, beautiful girls. Indeed, I was pleased to see recently that Miss America strongly resembled an old high school classmate of mine." His face slackens as the memory seeps in. "She had that fearless pep that is after all the energy that makes the world continue, isn't it?" He says he "wasted" those years, "when most people do their basic reading, reading instead mystery novels and P.G. Wodehouse." And the nerd of Shillington, with his bad skin and elevated tastes, became something of a comedian. "It was my sexual display, insofar as I had one, to be sort of comical, and I was voted the wittiest member of my high school class."
He pauses for the ritual relighting of one of the cigarillos which have replaced cigarettes: "I'm sort of asthmatic, enough to convince me to stop." Under the desk, a moccasined foot twitches rapidly.
As a boy, he wrote reams: hundred of poems, scores of drawings, numerous contributions to The Chatterbox, the school paper (he has kept them all, neatly archived and catalogued) with the encouragement of his mother. "I wouldn't be a writer without her," Updike says. "One of my earliest memories is seeing her at the sunny window trying to write and sending off envelopes to New York and getting envelopes back." His "first love," however, was Walt Disney--an affection supplanted when The New Yorker subscription began. And he was drawn to the Platonic purity of print -- "a kind of miracle . . . having your handwriting and then your typing, both defective, turned into perfect type was very stimulating." (On a side table in his study sits a ponderous, self-erasing Olympia electric, a mighty Wurlitzer of a typewriter unused except for clean final copy.)
By the age of 17, "it seemed as though I might really make a go of the big leagues." But his mother wasn't sure. "Fearful that she had somehow led me down the garden path, she had me tested at NYU -- a three-day set of aptitude tests and things to see if I really had a chance at being a writer. They thought I'd do fine, I could do most anything I wanted. I was greatly reassured. They also said I could be an accountant if I wanted to -- I had a great clerical aptitude. And it's helped me being a writer. Having that sort of neatness, orderliness." (Behind his desk, a wall of his own works stands immaculate and consecutive -- one copy of each edition, one copy of each translation. Another wall of American writers waits in alphabetical rigor.)
So he took a full scholarship to Harvard "because I thought I wanted to be a humorous writer." He had read in a magazine that the Harvard Lampoon was the best college humor journal, and "I may have been one of the few people in the country who went to Harvard because it had the Lampoon."
He found it "a bastion of privilege," and was angered that "a lot of those kids had more money in their pockets than my father could make in a year." In the years to come, class tensions would often aggravate Updike's characters, and he believes that it is difficult for the rich to write well: "If you're rich enough, you don't quite see the problem. And if you don't see the problem, there's no point in writing fiction. There has to be an irritation that makes you want to cry out. All fiction is in a funny way protest fiction. Even Jane Austen." But he eventually headed the magazine, while majoring in English and taking a few art courses in the fine arts department, where he met Radcliffe undergraduate Mary Pennington.
He was 21 and had accepted a fellowship in painting at Oxford. She was 23, and "my sense of it was if I didn't marry her I'd lose her because she would have to go off." So he wed "scandalously early" in England and their first child was born there. At about the same time, The New Yorker was starting to accept his work ("a piece of light verse about Rolls meeting Royce" and a story about a "poor but plucky adolescent"), and he was learning the techniques of fiction from contemporary masters like J.D. Salinger: "His use of detail and of modern talk, indirection and irony, a diffuse feeling about significance. I'd like to say I learned it all from Chekhov. But I think it was Salinger. The aesthetic problem as I saw it in the mid-'50s was that most stories or novels tried to tell us stories with a beginning, middle and end, but in fact life isn't really like that. We need something subtler to catch the little fish of truth. Both Salinger and Henry Green a British novelist whom Updike once called "the saint of the mundane" seemed to do that."
In 1955, E.B. White visited him in England with an offer of a job at The New Yorker, and the Updikes went to Manhattan. But after two years, he decided to run. The steady job and competitive ambiance prevented the kind of writing he wanted to do, and he found himself drained by extraneous projects. "Writers aren't very good at managing their own careers, and I'm fairly amiable and can see the charm in attempting almost any dumb thing.
"One of the things that helped me get out of New York was that somebody had the idea of my doing the libretto for a musical-comedy version of 'Brave New World.' Well, it did sound like a pretty good idea to me, and nobody else was asking me." He "sketched out this scene of the babies, the fetuses in the bottles singing. Kind of eerie, but it would have worked! That's the sort of thing you get to thinking about, and then years go by and soon you're 48 with gray hair and you haven't written a book, and people say whatever happened to John Updike?" (He remains susceptible: "I was asked some years later by a magazine to write a rhyming account of the year's news events. I did it, but my stanza about Nagy being upset in Hungary was much too jaunty for the gravity of the occasion and they turned the whole thing down. I wasted all this time going over newspapers and making funny rhymes for Khrushchev.")
So he decided to "get out of the whole orbit of New York money and expectations," and moved to Ispwich, the storybook town where the couple had honeymooned. "I figured if I could sell six stories a year to The New Yorker we could manage." They bought a large house, Updike took an office downtown above a restaurant, determined that "every other book would be a novel." In 1957, "The Poorhouse Fair" gave him his first national reputation and his first critics. Updike's fiction is not overburdened by action, and his spare story lines are embellished with a lush and elegantly wrought style that some readers find majestic (John Barth calls him the Andrew Wyeth of American writers) and others intolerable. Norman Podhoretz described his prose in "The Poorhouse Fair" as "overly lyrical, bloated like a child who has eaten too much candy." And even Norman Mailer, no linguistic purist himself, carps at the "literary commercials in the style." ("I'm aware that my style has to be chastened," says Updike, who in 1970 would write a biting satire of the literary establishment -- "Bech: A Book" -- in which Podhoretz and others are lampooned.)
But his reputation rose with "Rabbit, Run" in 1960 -- "a bit more of a popular novel, although it too was a very determinedly arty novel." It was also determinedly sexy. "About the only cause left that I could see in writing" was "to represent sex honestly, to show it as it really is with the belly rumbles and the doubts. You can't do that entirely without naming the parts or the sensations." If sexual taboos could be "put behind us," Updike believed, then writers could "use it or not as we wish, since there is some life that isn't sex. Although, um, not an enormous amount." But the lawyers, worried about the explicit "body contact," didn't see it that way. Updike, "with all the idealism of the recent college graduate," protested. In the end, some 500 words were removed, but the description of oral sex "went right through because it was very obliquely done." A year or so later, " 'Lolita' was out, and it all seemed kind of old hat. And I've never had to be courageous since."
Not quite. He came to an impasse in writing "The Centaur," with its first-person evocation of high school and the painful confluence of love, comtempt and pity he felt for his father. In the early '60s, facing 30 (when "youth is over"), he was "writing against a despair of being able to go on." The novel "seemed a very dubious idea and I thought several times of giving it up. I had to do things like change from the typewriter to handwriting and back again, I came home to write, I wrote part of it in red ink." The result may have "seemed, as the critics said, very arch and over-elaborate"; but it won the National Book Award, "so I had the last laugh."
"Couples," about marital infidelity in a small town, became his most popular book. Although regarded in fussier quarters as pornography, it was motivated by a "hidden moral outrage" at a social event he witnessed in Ipswich: "people who couldn't lay off their personal lives for one night to decently observe the death of a president." Moreover, he had intended it as a serious love story, and "I'm sorry it wasn't perceived as the romance it was supposed to be. I saw Piet and Foxy -- and this is long before my own divorce -- as somehow Tristram and Isoldish, designed for each other as shown by their sexual compatibility, which was spelled out. And against this background of gargoylish marriages they took their lumps and the disapproval of the community."
So did Updike. Although the book "went to some trouble to avoid any one-to-one relationships" with people in Ipswich, "I felt kind of timid tredding around the first couple of days." But "I didn't get much flak," and besides, "my attempt had been honorable . . . and if the people around me didn't like it, well, screw 'em."
Updike is kinder to his characters than almost any contemporary novelist (in church, he says, he was impressed with the concept of "judge not, and I try not to be judgmental as the creator of a little world"). But in "Couples," Freddy Thorne the dentist "was about as close to a kind of nasty person as I could construct." The reason: "I don't have very good teeth, and I'm very fond of sweet and starchy things. Worse yet, I grew up in World War II when most of the dentists were off in the Army. So I have spent many an hour hurting and scared in the dental chair. A gynecological exam for a woman must be worse, but for a man, dentistry is about as bad as it gets. I think it's a mighty theme, really. I'm surprised there haven't been too many good novels written about dentistry."
In 1978, he left his quotidian themes with "The Coup," a fictional memoir of a troubled African president faced with "the Americanization of the world," Updike says. "My model was Muammar Qaddafi." Since then, he has returned to the familiar with the story collection "Problems" in 1979 and now the third Rabbit book. "Rabbit, Run" had been written "without any thought of a sequel," and it was not until 1969 -- after an unsuccessful attempt to wrestle the life of President James Buchanan into an historical novel (it finally became a play) -- that Updike turned to the story that became "Rabbit Redux" in 1971. "Once you've written one sequel, it seems unavoidable not to write another," Updike says, and will attempt the last in a few years. "I think a tetralogy is nice -- it boxes it up." A New Life
Martha, 43, floats silently into the room. "How do you doooo," says the husband, in the rising what-have-we-here? tones of a Tory nob meeting the new governess. She is a handsome woman with a garden-party smile, Junior League posture and platinum hair, a former teacher who works part-time evaluating special-education programs. Dressed in plain red blouse and severe black skirt, she inquires after the author's appetite, they chat about her errands in Boston and her son's prowess with the car -- "a 17-year-old with a new license, it's very nervous-making" -- and she disappears into the tidy Yankee furnishings of the old colonial house.
Since living with her, Updike has developed an even greater aversion to publicity, inveighing against the "funny kind of marriage between writing and television, promotion and production," in which "someone who's trying to unpack his heart through the devices of fiction" finds instead that "what really counts is the agrandizement of himself as a figure, as a celebrity, as a name brand." He calls himself "a late but fervent believer in silence, exile and cunning -- I guess that's our 20th-century banner," and although he has done some tube-chat himself, "it's very hard for me to picture my idols -- Joyce and Proust and Kafka -- going on the Johnny Carson Show." Yet he confesses to being an enthusiastic devourer of interviews. "On the one hand, I'm a Jekyll of abhorrence, and on the other I am a Hyde of consumption."
He goes to New York only rarely, to serve on a committee of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and to stop in at Knopf and The New Yorker, "although all of our real business is conducted over the telephone or by mail." And three or four times a year, somewhat reluctantly, he will attend a benefit for one cause or another. "The only really glamorous people are the hangers-on, of course, the young people who look spiffy and know how to disco. The so-called celebrities tend to be sort of a funky old pot-bellied crowd who fall asleep at 10:30."
Despite his exile, he admits to "some curiosity" about the lit-biz crowd in the Hamptons, where he has stayed as guest of Kurt Vonnegut and family. "I love knowing that there are people out there in those potato fields with several million dollars each and the Mercedes are thick as Toyotas. I like knowing it's there and having a tiny purchase on it . . . but I can't imagine sitting down in East Hampton and writing about Rabbit Angstrom -- or writing anything without a fairly immediate payoff in terms of fame or money or both."
Updike is hardly averse to making money. He refuses to work on screen adaptations of his fiction, but "I don't mind optioning it out." "Rabbit, Run" was made into an unsuccesful film with James Caan and Carrie Snodgress; in 1968, he sold the rights to "Couples" for over half a million dollars ("I had the pleasure of touching the money and not having to have the movie made"); and recently the Maples stories were made into a "rather nice little TV movie," although "Michael Moriarty wasn't the Richard Maple of my dreams."
He does not have an agent, has stayed with Knopf since "The Poorhouse Fair," and except for the last novel, has never asked for an advance. "I think that the book should either make the money or I not be paid. I don't want to owe them money, or feel I do." At a royalty rate of "a buck fifty or two bucks a book," "The Coup" (1978) which sold about 100,000 copies -- "pretty good for something that quirky" -- brought in around $200,000 before the paperback deal. "It still seems like a lot of money to me," he says. After 25 years, Knopf "gives me whatever I want in terms of design and production." He "gets involved in the jackets, the type -- everything," says Knopf vice president Nina Bourne, as well as writing his own jacket copy and revising extensively from the galley proofs (half of "Rabbit is Rich" was rewritten).
For the future, he intends to turn his gracious cadences to a couple of "abortive novels I've abandoned." One is the "death-bed history of James Buchanan, who tried to keep things stable and whole and got small thanks for it, whereas Lincoln, who presided beautifully over a holocaust got a lot of good marks." Also gestating: a "book about witches," which will "work with my feeling about women and the earth."
Not necessarily best-seller material, nor likely to break the bank in the Hamptons. But look at it this way: "My father never thought I could make a nickel out of this. So any nickel I make, I'm sort of one up on him already."